Francis had not ridden far before he was vexed with himself. He was not so much sorry, as annoyed that he had behaved in fashion undignified. The thought that his childish behaviour would justify Kirsty in her opinion of him, added its sting. He tried to console himself with the reflection that the sort of thing ought to be put an end to at once: how far, otherwise, might not the old fellow's interference go! I am afraid he even said to himself that such was a consequence of familiarity with inferiors. Yet angry as he was at his fault-finding, he would have been proud of any approval from the lips of the old soldier. He rode his pony mercilessly for a mile or so, then pulled up, and began to talk pettingly to him, which I doubt if the little creature found consoling, for love only makes petting worth anything, and the love here was not much to the front.
About halfway home, he had to ford a small stream, or go round two miles by a bridge. There had been much rain in the night, and the stream was considerably swollen. As he approached the ford, he met a knife-grinder, who warned him not to attempt it: he had nearly lost his wheel in it, he said. But Francis always found it hard to accept advice. His mother had so often predicted from neglect of hers evils which never followed, that he had come to think counsel the one thing not to be heeded.
'Thank you,' he said; 'I think we can manage it!' and rode on.
When he reached the ford, where of all places he ought to have left the pony's head free, he foolishly remembered the curb-chain, and getting off, took it up a couple of links.
But when he remounted, whether from dread of the rush of the brown water, or resentment at the threat of renewed torture, the pony would not take the ford, and a battle royal arose between them, in which Francis was so far victorious that, after many attempts to run away, little Don, rendered desperate by the spur, dashed wildly into the stream, and went plunging on for two or three yards. Then he fell, and Francis found himself rolling in the water, swept along by the current.
A little way lower down, at a sharp turn of the stream under a high bank, was a deep pool, a place held much in dread by the country lads and lasses, being a haunt of the kelpie. Francis knew the spot well, and had good reason to fear that, carried into it, he must be drowned, for he could not swim. Roused by the thought to a yet harder struggle, he succeeded in getting upon his feet, and reaching the bank, where he lay for a while, exhausted. When at length he came to himself and rose, he found the water still between him and home, and nothing of his pony to be seen. If the youth's good sense had been equal to his courage, he would have been a fine fellow: he dashed straight into the ford, floundered through it, and lost his footing no more than had Don, treated properly. When he reached the high ground on the other side, he could still see nothing of him, and with sad heart concluded him carried into the Kelpie's Hole, never more to be beheld alive:—what would his mother and Mr. Barclay say? Shivering and wretched, and with a growing compunction in regard to his behaviour to Don, he crawled wearily home.
Don, however, had at no moment been much in danger. Rid of his master, he could take very good care of himself. He got to the bank without difficulty, and took care it should be on the home-side of the stream. Not once looking behind him after his tyrant, he set off at a good round trot, much refreshed by his bath, and rejoicing in the thought of his loose box at castle Weelset.
In a narrow part of the road, however, he overtook a cart of Mr. Barclay's; and as he attempted to pass between it and the steep brae, the man on the shaft caught at his bridle, made him prisoner, tied him to the cart behind, and took him to Corbyknowe. When David came home and saw him, he conjectured pretty nearly what had happened, and tired as he was set out for the castle. Had he not feared that Francis might have been injured, he would not have cared to go, much as he knew it must relieve him to learn that his pony was safe.
Mrs. Gordon declined to see David, but he ascertained from the servants that Francis had come home half-drowned, leaving Don in the Kelpie's Hole.
David hesitated a little whether or not to punish him for his behaviour to the pony by allowing him to remain in ignorance of his safety, and so leaving him to the agen-bite of conscience; but concluding that such was not his part, he told them that the animal was safe at Corbyknowe, and went home again.
But he wanted Francis to fetch the pony himself, therefore did not send him, and in the meantime fed and groomed him with his own hands as if he had been his friend's charger. Francis having just enough of the grace of shame to make him shrink from going to Corbyknowe, his mother wrote to David, asking why he did not send home the animal. David, one of the most courteous of men, would take no order from any but his superior officer, and answered that he would gladly give him up to the young laird in person.
The next day Mrs. Gordon drove, in what state she could muster, to Corbyknowe. Arrived there, she declined to leave her carriage, requesting Mrs. Barclay, who came to the door, to send her husband to her. Mrs. Barclay thought it better to comply.
David came in his shirt-sleeves, for he had been fetched from his work.
'If I understand your answer to my request, Mr. Barclay, you decline to send back Mr. Gordon's pony. Pray, on what grounds?'
'I wrote, ma'am, that I should be glad to give him over to Mr. Francis himself.'
'Mr. Gordon does not find it convenient to come all this way on foot. In fact he declines to do it, and requests that you will send the pony home this afternoon.'
'Excuse me, mem, but it's surely enough done that a man make known the presence o' strays, and tak proper care o' them until they're claimt! I was fain forbye to gie the bonny thing a bit pleesur in life: Francie's ower hard upon him.'
'You forget, David Barclay, that Mr. Gordon is your landlord!'
'His father, mem, was my landlord, and his father's father was my father's landlord; and the interests o' the landlord hae aye been oors. Ither nor Francie's herty freen I can never be!'
'You presume on my late husband's kindness to you, Barclay!'
'Gien devotion be presumption, mem, I presume. Archibald Gordon was and is my freen, and will be for ever. We hae been throuw ower muckle thegither to change to are anither. It was for his sake and the laddie's ain that I wantit him to come to me. I wantit a word wi' him aboot that powny o' his. He'll never be true man 'at taks no tent (care) o' dumb animals! You 'at's sae weel at hame i' the seddle yersel, mem, micht tak a kin'ly care o' what's aneth his!'
'I will have no one interfere with my son. I am quite capable of teaching him his duty myself.'
'His father requestit me to do what I could for him, mem.'
'His late father, if you please, Barclay!'
'He s' never be Francie's late father to Francie, gien I can help it, mem! He may be your late husband, mem, but he's my cornel yet, and I s' keep my word til him! It'll no be lang noo, i' the natur o' things, till I gang til him; and sure am I his first word 'll be aboot the laddie: I wud ill like to answer him, "Archie, I ken naething aboot him but what I cud weel wuss itherwise!" Hoo wud ye like to gie sic an answer yersel, mem?'
'I'm surprised at a man of your sense, Barclay, thinking we shall know one another in heaven! We shall have to be content with God there!'
'I said naething about h'aven, mem! Fowk may ken are anither and no be in ae place. I took note i' the kirk last Sunday 'at Abrahaam kent the rich man, and the rich man him, and they warna i' the same place.—But ye'll lat the yoong laird come and see me, mem?' concluded David, changing his tone and speaking as one who begged a favour; for the thought of meeting his old friend and having nothing to tell him about his boy, quenched his pride.
'Home, Thomas!' cried her late husband's wife to her coachman, and drove away.
'Dod! they'll hae to gie that wife a hell til hersel!' said David, turning to the door discomfited.
'And maybe she'll no like it whan she hes't!' returned his wife, who had heard every word. 'There's fowk 'at's no fit company for onybody! and I'm thinkin she's ane gien there bena anither!'
'I'll sen' Jeamie hame wi' the powny the nicht,' said David. 'A body canna insist whaur fowk are no frien's. That weud grow to enmity, and the en' o' a' guid. Na, we maun sen' hame the powny; and gien there be ony grace i' the bairn, he canna but come and say thank ye!'
Mrs. Gordon rejoiced in her victory; but David's yielding showed itself the true policy. Francis did call and thank him for taking care of Don. He even granted that perhaps he had been too hard on the pony.
'Ye cud richteously expeck naething o' a powny o' his size that that powny o' yours cudna du, Francie!' said David. 'But, in God's name, dear laddie, be a richteous man. Gien ye requere no more than's fair frae man or beast, ye'll maistly aye get it. But gien yer ootluik in life be to get a'thing and gie naething, ye maun come to grief ae w'y and a' w'ys. Success in an ill attemp is the warst failyie a man can mak.'
But it was talking to the wind, for Francis thought, or tried to think David only bent, like his mother, on finding fault with him. He made haste to get away, and left his friend with a sad heart.
He rode on to the foot of the Horn, to the spot where Kirsty was usually at that season to be found; but she saw him coming, and went up the hill. Soon after, his mother contrived that he should pay a visit to some relatives in the south, and for a time neither the castle nor the Horn saw anything of him. Without returning home he went in the winter to Edinburgh, where he neither disgraced nor distinguished himself. David was to hear no ill of him. To be beyond his mother's immediate influence was perhaps to his advantage, but as nothing superior was substituted, it was at best but little gain. His companions were like himself, such as might turn to worse or better, no one could tell which.
KIRSTY AND PHEMY
During the first winter which Francis spent at college, his mother was in England, and remained there all the next summer and winter. When at last she came home, she was even less pleasant than before in the eyes of her household, no one of which had ever loved her. Throughout the summer she had a succession of visitors, and stories began to spread concerning strange doings at the castle. The neighbours talked of extravagance, and the censorious among them of riotous living; while some of the servants more than hinted that the amount of wine and whisky consumed was far in excess of what served when the old colonel was alive.
One of them who, in her mistress's frequent fits of laziness, acted as housekeeper, had known David Barclay from his boyhood, and understood his real intimacy with her late master: it was not surprising, therefore, that she should open her mind to him, while keeping toward everyone else a settled silence concerning her mistress's affairs: none of the stories current in the country-side came from her. David was to Mrs. Bremner the other side of a deep pit, into the bottom of which whatever was said between them dropped.
'There'll come a catastrophe or lang,' said Mrs. Bremner one evening when David Barclay overtook her on the road to the town, 'and that'll be seen! The property's jist awa to the dogs! There's Maister Donal, the factor, gaein aboot like are in a dilemm as to cuttin 's thro't or blawin his harns oot! He daursna say a word, ye see! The auld laird trustit him, and he's feart 'at he be blamit, but there's nae duin onything wi' that wuman: the siller maun be forthcomin whan she's wantin 't!'
'The siller's no hers ony mair nor the Ian'; a' 's the yoong laird's!' remarked David.
'That's true; but she's i' the pooer o' 't till he come o' age; and Maister Donal, puir man, mony's the time he 's jist driven to are mair to get what's aye wantit and wantit! What comes o' the siller it jist blecks me to think: there's no a thing aboot the hoose to shaw for 't! And hearken, David, but latna baith lugs hear 't, for dreid the tane come ower't again to the tither—I'm doobtin the drink's gettin a sair grup o' her!'
''Deed I wudna be nane surprised!' returned David. 'Whatever micht want in at her door, there's naething inside to baud it oot. Eh, to think o' Archie Gordon takin til himsel sic a wife! that a man like him, o' guid report, and come to years o' discretion—to think o' brains like his turnin as fozy as an auld neep at sicht o' a bonny front til an ae wa' hoose (a house of but one wall)! It canna be 'at witchcraft's clean dune awa wi'!'
'Bonny, Dawvid! Ca'd ye the mistress bonny?'
'She used to be—bonny, that is, as a button or a buckle micht be bonny. What she may be the noo, I dinna ken, for I haena set ee upon her sin' she cam to the Knowe orderin me to sen' back Francie's powny: she was suppercilly eneuch than for twa cornels and a corporal, but no ill luikin. Gien she hae a spot o' beaouty left, the drink 'll tak it or it hae dune wi' her!'
'Or she hae dune wi' hit, Dawvid! It's ta'en ae colour frae her a'ready, and begud to gie her anither! But it concerns me mair aboot Francie nor my leddy: what's to come o' him when a' 's gane? what'll there be for him to come intil?'
Gladly would David have interfered, but he was helpless; he had no legal guardianship over or for the boy! Nothing could be done till he was a man!—'gien ever he be a man!' said David to himself with a sigh, and the thought how much better off he was with his half-witted Steenie than his friend with his clever Francie.
Mrs. Bremner was sister-in-law to the schoolmaster, and was then on her way to see him and his daughter Phemy. From childhood the girl had been in the way of going to the castle to see her aunt, and so was well known about the place. Being an engaging child, she had become not only welcome to the servants but something of a favourite with the mistress, whom she amused with her little airs, and pleased with her winning manners. She was now about fourteen, a half-blown beauty of the red and white, gold and blue kind. She had long been a vain little thing, approving of her own looks in the glass, and taking much interest in setting them off, but so simple as to make no attempt at concealing her self-satisfaction. Her pleased contemplation of this or that portion of her person, and the frantic attempts she was sometimes espied making to get a sight of her back, especially when she wore a new frock, were indeed more amusing than hopeful, but her vanity was not yet so pronounced as to overshadow her better qualities, and Kirsty had not thought it well to take notice of it, although, being more than anyone else a mother to her, she was already a little anxious on the score of it, and the rather that her aunt, like her father, neither saw nor imagined fault in her.
That the child had no mother, drew to her the heart of the girl whose mother was her strength and joy; while gratitude to the child's father, who, in opening for her some doors of wisdom and more of knowledge, had put her under eternal obligations, moved her to make what return she could. It deepened her sense of debt to Phemy that the schoolmaster did not do for his daughter anything like what he had years long been doing for his pupil, whence she almost felt as if she had diverted to her own use much that rightly belonged to Phemy. At the same time she knew very well that had she never existed the relation between the father and the daughter would have been the same. The child of his dearly loved wife, the schoolmaster was utterly content with his Phemy; for he felt as if she knew everything her mother knew, had the same inward laws of being and the same disposition, and was simply, like her, perfect.
That she should ever do anything wrong was an idea inconceivable to him. Nor was there much chance of his discovering it if she did. When not at work, he was constantly reading. Most people close a book without having gained from it a single germ of thought; Mr. Craig seldom opened one without falling directly into a brown study over something suggested by it. But I believe that, even when thus absorbed, Phemy was never far from his thought. At the same time, like many Scots, while she was his one joy, he seldom showed her sign of affection, seldom made her feel, and never sought to make her feel how he loved her. His love was taken by him for understood by her, and was to her almost as if it did not exist.
That his child required to be taught had scarcely occurred to the man who could not have lived without learning, or enjoyed life without teaching—as witness the eagerness with which he would help Kirsty along any path of knowledge in which he knew how to walk. The love of knowledge had grown in him to a possessing passion, paralyzing in a measure those powers of his life sacred to life—that is, to God and his neighbour.
Kirsty could not do nearly what she would to make up for his neglect. For one thing, the child did not take to learning, and though she loved Kirsty and often tried to please her, would not keep on doing anything without being more frequently reminded of her duty than the distance between their two abodes permitted. Kirsty had her to the farm as often as the schoolmaster would consent to her absence, and kept her as long as he went on forgetting it; while Phemy was always glad to go to Corbyknowe, and always glad to get away again. For Mrs. Barclay thought it her part to teach her household matters, and lessons of that sort Phemy relished worse than some of a more intellectual nature. If left with her, the moment Kirsty appeared again, the child would fling from her whatever might be in her hand, and flee as to her deliverer from bondage and hard labour. Then would Kirsty always insist on her finishing what she had been at, and Phemy would obey, with the protest of silent tears, and the airs of a much injured mortal. Had Kirsty been backed by the child's father, she might have made something of her; but it grew more and more painful to think of her future, when her self-constituted guardian should have lost what influence she had over her.
Phemy was rather afraid of Steenie. Her sunny nature shrank from the shadow, as of a wall, in which Steenie appeared to her always to stand. From any little attention he would offer her, she, although never rude to him, would involuntarily recoil, and he soon learned to leave her undismayed. That the child's repugnance troubled him, though he never spoke of it, Kirsty saw quite plainly, for she could read his face like a book, and heard him sigh when even his mother did not. Her eyes were constantly regarding him, like sheep feeding on the pasture of his face:—I think I have used a figure of sir Philip Sidney's. But say rather—the thoughts that strayed over his face were the sheep to which all her life she had been the devoted shepherdess.
At Corbyknowe things went on as hitherto. Kirsty was in no danger of tiring of the even flow of her life. Steenie's unselfish solitude of soul made him every day dearer to her. Books she sought in every accessible, and found occasionally in an unhopeful quarter. She had no thought of distinguishing herself, no smallest ambition of becoming learned; her soul was athirst to understand, and what she understood found its way from her mind into her life. Much to the advantage of her thinking were her keen power and constant practice of observation. I utterly refuse the notion that we cannot think without words, but certainly the more forms we have ready to embody our thoughts, the farther we shall be able to carry our thinking. Richly endowed, Kirsty required the more mental food, and was the more able to use it when she found it. To such of the neighbours as had no knowledge of any diligence save that of the hands, she seemed to lead an idle life; but indeed even Kirsty's hands were far from idle. When not with Steenie she was almost always at her mother's call, who, from the fear that she might grow up incapable of managing a house, often required a good deal of her. But the mother did not fail to note with what alacrity she would lay her book aside, sometimes even dropping it in her eagerness to answer her summons. Dismissed for the moment, she would at once take her book again and the seat nearest to it: she could read anywhere, and gave herself none of the student-airs that make some young people so pitifully unpleasant. At the same time solitude was preferable for study, and Kirsty was always glad to find herself with her books in the little hut, Steenie asleep on the heather carpet on her feet, and the assurance that there no one would interrupt her.
It was not wonderful that, in the sweet absence of selfish cares, her mind full of worthy thoughts, and her heart going out in tenderness, her face should go on growing in beauty and refinement. She was not yet arrived at physical full growth, and the forms of her person being therefore in a process of change were the more easily modelled after her spiritual nature. She seemed almost already one that would not die, but live for ever, and continue to inherit the earth. Neither her father nor her mother could have imagined anything better to be made of her.
Steenie had not changed his habits, neither seemed to grow at all more like other people. He was now indeed seldom so much depressed as formerly, but he showed no sign of less dependence on Kirsty.
About a year after Francis Gordon went to Edinburgh, Kirsty and Steenie made a discovery.
Between Corbyknowe and the Horn, on whose sides David Barclay had a right of pasturage for the few sheep to which Steenie and Snootie were the shepherds, was a small glen, through which, on its way to join the little river with the kelpie-pot, ran a brook, along whose banks lay two narrow breadths of nice grass. The brother and sister always crossed this brook when they wanted to go straight to the top of the hill.
One morning, having each taken the necessary run and jump, they had began to climb on the other side, when Kirsty, who was a few paces before him, turned at an exclamation from Steenie.
'It's a' the weicht o' my muckle feet!' he cried, as he dragged one of the troublesome members out of a hole. 'Losh, I dinna ken hoo far it michtna hae gane doon gien I hadna gotten a haud o' 't in time and pu'd it oot!'
How much of humour, how much of silliness, and how much of truth were wrapt up together in some of the things he said, it was impossible to determine. I believe Kirsty came pretty near knowing, but even she was not always sure where wilful oddity and where misapprehension was at the root of a remark.
'Gien ye set yer fit upon a hole,' said Kirsty, 'what can the puir thing du but gang doon intil 't? Ye maunna be oonrizzonable wi' the craturs, Steenie! Ye maun be fair til them.'
'But there was nae hole!' returned Steenie. 'There cudna hae been. There's the hole noo! My fit made it, and there it'll hae to bide! It's a some fearsome thing, divna ye think, 'at what aiven the fit o' a body dis, bides? What for disna the hole gang awa whan the fit lifts? Luik ye there! Ye see thae twa stanes stan'in up by themsels, and there's the hole—atween the twa! There cudna hae been a hole there afore the weicht o' my fit cam doon upo' the spot and ca'd it throuw! I gaed in maist til my knee!'
'Lat's luik!' said Kirsty, and proceeded to examine the place.
She thought at first it must be the burrow of some animal, but the similarity in shape of the projecting stones suggesting that their position might not be fortuitous, she would look a little farther, and began to pull away the heather about the mouth of the opening. Steenie set himself, with might and main, to help her. Kirsty was much the stronger of the two, but Steenie always did his best to second her in anything that required exertion.
They soon spied the lump of sod and heather which Steenie's heavy foot had driven down, and when they had pulled that out, they saw that the hole went deeper still, seeming a very large burrow indeed—therefore a little fearsome. Having widened the mouth of it by clearing away a thick growth of roots from its sides, and taken out a quantity of soft earth, they perceived that it went sloping into the ground still farther. With growing curiosity they leant down into it, lying on the edge, and reaching with their hands removed the loose earth as low as they could. This done, the descent showed itself about two feet square, as far down as they had cleared it, beyond which a little way it was lost in the dark.
What were they to do next? There was yet greater inducement to go on, but considerations came which were not a little deterrent. Although Steenie had worked well, Kirsty knew he had a horror of dark places, associating them somehow with the weight of his feet: whether such places had for him any suggestion of the grave, I cannot tell; certainly to get rid of his feet was the form his idea of the salvation he needed was readiest to take. Then might there not be some animal inside? Steenie thought not, for there was no opening until he made it! and Kirsty also thought not, on the ground that she knew no wild animal larger than fox or badger, neither of which would have made such a big hole. One moment, however, her imagination was nearly too much for her: what if some huge bear had been asleep in it for hundreds of years, and growing all the time! Certainly he could not get out, but if she roused him, and he got a hold of her! The next instant her courage revived, for she would have been ashamed to let what she did not believe influence any action. The passage must lead somewhere, and it was large enough for her to explore it!
Because of her dress, she must creep in head foremost—in which lay the advantage that so she would meet any danger face to face! Telling Steenie that if he heard her cry out, he must get hold of her feet and pull, she laid herself on the ground and crawled in. She thought it must lead to an ancient tomb, but said nothing of the conjecture for fear of horrifying Steenie, who stood trembling, sustained only by his faith in Kirsty.
She went down and down and quite disappeared. Not a foot was left for Steenie to lay hold of. Terrible and long seemed the time to him as he stood there forsaken, his darling out of sight in the heart of the earth. He knew there were wolves in Scotland once; who could tell but a she-wolf had been left, and a whole clan of them lived there underground, never issuing in the daytime! there might be the open mouth of a passage, under a rock and curtained with heather, in some other spot of the hill! What if one of them got Kirsty by the throat before she had time to cry out! Then he thought she might have gone till she could go no father, and not having room to turn, was trying to creep backward, but her clothes hindered her. Forgetting his repugnance in over-mastering fear, the faithful fellow was already half inside the hole to go after her, when up shot the head of Kirsty, almost in his face. For a moment he was terribly perplexed: he had been expecting to come on her feet, not her head: how could she have gone in head foremost, and not come back feet foremost?
'Eh, wuman,' he said in a fear-struck whisper, 'it's awfu' to see ye come oot o' the yird like a muckle worm!'
'Ye saw me gang in, Steenie, ye gowk!' returned Kirsty, dismayed herself at sight of his solemn dread.
'Ay,' answered Steenie, 'but I didna see ye come oot! Eh, Kirsty, wuman, hae ye a heid at baith en's o' ye?'
Kirsty's laughter blew Steenie's discomposure away, and he too laughed.
'Come back hame,' said Kirsty; 'I maun get haud o' a can'le! Yon's a place maun be seen intil. I never saw, or raither faun' (felt) the like o' 't, for o' seein there's nane, or next to nane. There's room eneuch; ye can see that wi' yer airms!'
'What is there room eneuch for?' asked Steenie.
'For you and me, and twenty or thirty mair, mebbe—I dinna ken,' replied Kirsty.
'I s' mak ye a present o' my room intil 't,' returned Steenie. 'I want nane o' 't.'
'Ill gang doon wi' the can'le,' said Kirsty, 'and see whether 't be a place for ye. Gien I cry oot, "Ay is't," wull ye come?'
'That I wull, gien 't war the whaul's belly!' replied Steenie.
They set out for the house, and as they walked they talked.
'I div won'er what the place cud ever hae been for!' said Kirsty, more to herself than Steenie. 'It's bigger nor ony thoucht I had o' 't.'
'What is 't like, Kirsty?' inquired Steenie.
'Hoo can I tell whan I saw naething!' replied Kirsty.
'But,' she added thoughtfully, 'gien it warna that we're in Scotlan', and they're nigh-han' Rom', I wud hae been 'maist sure I had won intil ane o' the catacombs!'
'Eh, losh, lat me awa to the hill!' cried Steenie, stopping and half turning. 'I canna bide the verra word o' the craturs!'
'What word than?' asked Kirsty, a little surprised; for how did Steenie know anything about the catacombs?
'To think,' he went on, 'o' a haill kirk o' cats aneath the yird—a' sittin kaimin themsels wi' kaims!—Kirsty, ye winna think it a place for me? Ye see I'm no like ither fowk, and sic a thing micht ca (drive) me oot o' a' the sma' wits ever I hed!'
'Hoots!' rejoined Kirsty, with a smile, 'the catacombs has naething to du wi' cats or kaims!'
'Tell me what are they, than.'
'The catacombs,' answered Kirsty, 'was what in auld times, and no i' this cuintry ava, they ca'd the places whaur they laid their deid.'
'Eh, Kirsty, but that's waur!' returned Steenie. 'I wudna gang intil sic a place wi' feet siclike's my ain—na, no for what the warl cud gie me!—no for lang Lowrie's fiddle and a' the tunes intil't! I wud never get my feet oot o' 't! They'd haud me there!'
Then Kirsty began to tell him, as she would have taught a child, something of the history of the catacombs, knowing how it must interest him.
'I' the days langsyne,' she said, 'there was fowk, like you and me, unco fain o' the bonny man. The verra soun o' the name o' 'im was eneuch to gar their herts loup wi' doonricht glaidness. And they gaed here and there and a' gait, and tellt ilka body aboot him; and fowk 'at didna ken him, and didna want to ken him, cudna bide to hear tell o' him, and they said, "Lat's hae nae mair o' this! Hae dune wi' yer bonny man! Haud yer tongues," they cryit. But the ithers, they wadna hear o' haudin their tongues. A'body maun ken aboot him! "Sae lang's we hae tongues, and can wag them to the name o' him," they said, "we'll no haud them!" And at that they fell upo' them, and ill-used them sair; some o' them they tuik and burnt alive—that is, brunt them deid; and some o' them they flang to the wild beasts, and they bitit them and tore them to bits. And—,
'Was the bitin o' the beasts terrible sair?' interrupted Steenie.
'Ay, I reckon it was some sair; but the puir fowk aye said the bonny man was wi' them; and lat them bite!—they didna care!'
'Ay, of coorse, gien he was wi' them they wadna min' 't a hair, or at least, no twa hairs! Wha wud! Gien he be in yon hole, Kirsty, I'll gang back and intil't my lee lane. I wull noo!'
Steenie turned and had run some distance before Kirsty succeeded in stopping him. She did not run after him.
'Steenie! Steenie!' she cried, 'I dinna doobt he's there, for he's a'gait; but ye ken yersel ye canna aye see him, and maybe ye wudna see him there the noo, and micht think he wasna there, and turn fleyt. Bide till we hae a licht, and I gang doon first.'
Steenie was persuaded, and turned and came back to her. To father, mother, and sister he was always obedient, even on the rare occasions when it cost him much to be so.
'Ye see, Steenie,' she continued, 'yon's no the place! I dinna ken yet what place yon is. I was only gaein to tell ye aboot the places it min't me o'! Wud ye like to hear aboot them?'
'I wad that, richt weel! Say awa, Kirsty.'
'The fowk, than, ye see, 'at lo'ed the bonny man, gethert themsels aye thegither to hae cracks and newses wi' ane anither aboot him; and, as I was tellin ye, the fowk 'at didna care aboot him war that angert 'at they set upo' them, and jist wud hae nane o' them nor him. Sae to hand oot o' their grip, they coonselled thegither, and concludit to gether in a place whaur naebody wud think o' luikin for them—whaur but i' the booels o' the earth, whaur they laid their deid awa upo' skelfs, like in an aumry!'
'Eh, but that was fearsome!' interposed Steenie. 'They maun hae been sair set!—Gien I had been there, wud they hae garred me gang wi' them?'
'Na, no gien ye didna like. But ye wud hae likit weel to gang. It wasna an ill w'y to beery fowk, nor an ill place to gang til, for they aye biggit up the skelf, ye ken. It was howkit oot—whether oot o' hard yird or saft stane, I dinna ken; I reckon it wud be some no sae hard kin' o' a rock—and whan the deid was laid intil 't, they biggit up the mou o' the place, that is, frae that same skelf to the ane 'at was abune 't, and sae a' was weel closed in.'
'But what for didna they beery their deid mensefulike i' their kirkyairds?'
''Cause theirs was a great muckle toon, wi' sic a heap o' hooses that there wasna room for kirkyards; sae they tuik them ootside the toon, and gaed aneth wi' them a'thegither. For there they howkit a lot o' passages like trances, and here and there a wee roomy like, wi' ither trances gaein frae them this gait and that. Sae, whan they tuik themsels there, the freens o' the bonny man wud fill ane o' the roomies, and stan' awa in ilk ane o' the passages 'at gaed frae 't; and that w'y, though there cudna mony o' them see ane anither at ance, a gey lottie wud hear, some a', and some a hantle o' what was said. For there they cud speyk lood oot, and a body abune hear naething and suspec naething. And jist think, Steenie, there's a pictur o' the bonny man himsel paintit upo' the wa' o' ane o' thae places doon aneth the grun'!'
'I reckon it'll be unco like him!'
'Maybe: I canna tell aboot that.'
'Gien I cud see 't, I cud tell; but I'm thinkin it'll be some gait gey and far awa?'
'Ay, it 's far, far.—It wud tak a body—lat me see—maybe half a year to trevel there upo' 's ain fit,' answered Kirsty, after some meditation.
'And me a hantle langer, my feet's sae odious heavy!' remarked Steenie with a sigh.
As they drew near the house, their mother saw them coming, and went to the door to meet them.
'We're wantin a bit o' a can'le, and a spunk or twa, mother,' said Kirsty.
'Ye s' get that,' answered Marion. 'But what want ye a can'le for i' the braid mids o' the daylicht?'
'We want to gang doon a hole,' replied Steenie with flashing eyes, 'and see the pictur o' the bonny man.'
'Hoot, Steenie! I tellt ye it wasna there,' interposed Kirsty.
'Na,' returned Steenie; 'ye only said yon hole wasna that place. Ye said the bonny man was there, though I michtna see him. Ye didna say the pictur wasna there.'
'The pictur 's no there, Steenie.—We've come upon a hole, mother, 'at we want to gang doon intil and see what it's like,' said Kirsty.
'The weicht o' my feet brak throu intil 't,' added Steenie.
'Preserve 's, lassie! tak tent whaur ye cairry the bairn!' cried the mother. 'But, eh, tak him whaur ye like,' she substituted, correcting herself. 'Weel ken I ye'll tak him naegait but whaur it's weel he sud gang! The laddie needs twa mithers, and the Merciful has gien him the twa! Ye're full mair his mither nor me, Kirsty!'
She asked no more questions, but got them the candle and let them go. They hastened back, Steenie in his most jubilant mood, which seemed always to have in it a touch of deathly frost and a flash as of the primal fire. What could be the strange displacement or maladjustment which, in the brain harbouring the immortal thing, troubled it so, and made it yearn after an untasted liberty? The source of his jubilance now was easy to tell: the idea of the bonny man was henceforth, in that troubled brain of his, associated with the place into which they were about to descend.
The moment they reached the spot, Kirsty, to the renewed astonishment of Steenie, dived at once into the ground at her feet, and disappeared.
'Kirsty! Kirsty!' he cried out after her, and danced like a terrified child. Then he shook with a fresh dismay at the muffled sound that came back to him in answer from the unseen hollows of the earth.
Already Kirsty stood at the bottom of the sloping tunnel, and was lighting her candle. When it burned up, she found herself looking into a level gallery, the roof of which she could touch. It was not an excavation, but had been trenched from the surface, for it was roofed with great slabs of stone. Its sides, of rough stones, were six or seven feet apart at the floor, which was paved with small boulders, but sloped so much toward each other that at the top their distance was less by about two and a half feet. Kirsty was, as I have said, a keen observer, and her power of seeing had been greatly developed through her constant conscientious endeavour to realize every description she read.
She went on about ten or twelve yards, and came to a bend in the gallery, succeeded by a sort of chamber, whence branched a second gallery, which soon came to an end. The place was in truth not unlike a catacomb, only its two galleries were built, and much wider than the excavated thousands in the catacombs. She turned back to the entrance, there left her candle alight, and again startled Steenie, still staring into the mouth of the hole, with her sudden reappearance.
'Wud ye like to come doon, Steenie?' she said. 'It's a queer place.'
'Is 't awfu' fearsome?' asked Steenie, shrinking.
His feeling of dismay at the cavernous, the terrene dark, was not inconsistent with his pleasure in being out on the wild waste hillside, when heaven and earth were absolutely black, not seldom the whole of the night, in utter loneliness to eye or ear, and his never then feeling anything like dread. Then and there only did he seem to have room enough. His terror was of the smallest pressure on his soul, the least hint at imprisonment. That he could not rise and wander about among the stars at his will, shaped itself to him as the heaviness of his feet holding him down. His feet were the loaded gyves that made of the world but a roomy prison. The limitless was essential to his conscious wellbeing.
'No a bittock,' answered Kirsty, who felt awe anywhere—on hilltop, in churchyard, in sunlit silent room—but never fear. 'It's as like the place I was tellin ye aboot—'
'Ay, the cat-place!' interrupted Steenie.
'The place wi' the pictur,' returned Kirsty.
Steenie darted forward, shot head-first into the hole as he had seen Kirsty do, and crept undismayed to the bottom of the slope. Kirsty followed close behind, but he was already on his feet when she joined him. He grasped her arm eagerly, his face turned from her, and his eyes gazing fixedly into the depth of the gallery, lighted so vaguely by the candle on the floor of its entrance.
'I think I saw him!' he said in a whisper full of awe and delight. 'I think I did see him!—but, Kirsty, hoo am I to be sure 'at I saw him?'
'Maybe ye did and maybe ye didna see him,' replied Kirsty; 'but that disna metter sae muckle, for he's aye seem you; and ye'll see him, and be sure 'at ye see him, whan the richt time comes.'
'Ye div think that, Kirsty?'
'Ay div I,' returned Kirsty, confidently.
'I s' wait,' answered Steenie, and in silence followed Kirsty along the gallery.
This was Steenie's first, and all but his last descent into the earth-house, or Picts' House, or weem, as a place of the sort is called: there are many such in the east of Scotland, their age and origin objects of merest conjecture. The moment he was out of it, he fled to the Horn.
The next Sunday he heard read at church the story of the burial and resurrection of the Lord, and unavoidably after their talk about the catacombs, associated the chamber they had just discovered with the tomb in which 'they laid him,' at the same time concluding the top of the hill, where he had, as he believed, on certain favoured nights met the bonny man, the place whence he ascended—to come again as Steenie thought he did! The earth-house had no longer any attraction for Steenie: the bonny man was not there; he was risen! He was somewhere above the mountain-top haunted by Steenie, and that he sometimes descended upon it Steenie already knew, for had he not seen him there!
Happy Steenie! Happier than so many Christians who, more in their brain-senses, but far less in their heart-senses than he, haunt the sepulchre as if the dead Jesus lay there still, and forget to walk the world with him who dieth no more, the living one!
But his sister took a great liking to the place, nor was repelled by her mistaken suspicion that there the people of the land in times unknown had buried some of their dead. In the hot days, when the earth-house was cool, and in the winter when the thick blanket of the snow lay over it, and it felt warm as she entered it from the frosty wind, she would sit there in the dark, sometimes imagining herself one of the believers of the old time, thinking the Lord was at hand, approaching in person to fetch her and her friends. When the spring came, she carried down sod and turf, and made for herself a seat in the central chamber, there to sit and think. By and by she fastened an oil lamp to the wall, and would light its rush-pith-wick, and read by it. Occasionally she made a good peat fire, for she had found a chimney that went sloping into the upper air; and if it did not always draw well, peat-smoke is as pleasant as wholesome, and she could bear a good deal of its smothering. Not unfrequently she carried her book there when no one was likely to want her, and enjoyed to the full the rare and delightful sense of absolute safety from interruption. Sometimes she would make a little song there, with which as she made it its own music would come, and she would model the air with her voice as she wrote the words in a little book on her knee.
A VISIT FROM FRANCIS GORDON
The summer following Gordon's first session at college, castle Weelset and Corbyknowe saw nothing of him. No one missed him much, and but for his father's sake no one would have thought much about him. Kirsty, as one who had told him the truth concerning himself, thought of him oftener than anyone except her father.
The summer after, he paid a short visit to castle Weelset, and went one day to Corbyknowe, where he left a favourable impression upon all, which impression Kirsty had been the readier to receive because of the respect she felt for him as a student. The old imperiousness which made him so unlike his father had retired into the background; his smile, though not so sweet, came oftener; and his carriage was full of courtesy. But something was gone which his old friends would gladly have seen still. His behaviour in the old time was not so pleasant, but he had been as one of the family. Often disagreeable, he was yet loving. Now, he laid himself out to make himself acceptable as a superior. Freed so long from his mother's lowering influences, what was of his father in him might by this time have come more to the surface but for certain ladies in Edinburgh, connections of the family, who, influenced by his good looks and pleasant manners, and possibly by his position in the Gordon country, sought his favour by deeds of flattery, and succeeded in spoiling him not a little.
Steenie happening to be about the house when he came, Francis behaved to him so kindly that the gentle creature, overcome with grateful delight, begged him to go and see a house he and Kirsty were building.
In some families the games of the children mainly consist in the construction of dwellings, of this kind or that—castle, or ship, or cave, or nest in the treetop—according to the material attainable. It is an outcome of the aboriginal necessity for shelter, this instinct of burrowing: Welbeck Abbey is the development of a weem or Picts' house. Steenie had very early shown it, probably from a vague consciousness of weakness, and Kirsty came heartily to his aid in following it, with the reaction of waking in herself a luxurious idea of sheltered safety. Northern children cherish in their imaginations the sense of protection more, I fancy, than others. This is partly owing to the severity of their climate, the snow and wind, the rain and sleet, the hail and darkness they encounter. I doubt whether an English child can ever have such a sense of protection as a Scots bairn in bed on a winter night, his mother in the nursery, and the wind howling like a pack of wolves about the house.
Francis consented to go with Steenie to see his house, and Kirsty naturally accompanied them. By this time she had gathered the little that was known, and there is very little known yet, concerning Picts' houses, and as they went it occurred to her that it would be pleasant to the laird to be shown a thing on his own property of which he had never heard, and which, in the eyes of some, would add to its value. She took the way, therefore, that led past the weem.
She had so well cleared out its entrance, that it was now comparatively easy of access, else I doubt if the young laird would have risked the spoiling of his admirably fitting clothes to satisfy the mild curiosity he felt regarding Kirsty's discovery. As it was, he pulled off his coat before entering, despite her assurance that he 'needna fear blaudin onything.'
She went in before him to light her candle and he followed. As she showed him the curious place, she gave him the results of her reading about such constructions, telling him who had written concerning them, and what they had written. 'There's mair o' them, I gether,' she said, 'and mair remarkable anes, in oor ain coonty nor in ony ither in Scotlan'. I hae mysel seen nane but this.' Then she told him how Steenie had led the way to its discovery. By the time she ended, Gordon was really interested—chiefly, no doubt, in finding himself possessor of a thing which many men, learned and unlearned, would think worth coming to see.
'Did you find this in it?' he asked, seating himself on her little throne of turf.
'Na; I put that there mysel,' answered Kirsty. 'There was naething intil the place, jist naething ava! There was naething ye cud hae pickit aff o' the flure. Gien it hadna been oot o' the gait o' the win', ye wud hae thoucht it had sweepit it clean. Ye cud hae tellt by naething intil't what ever it was meant for, hoose or byre or barn, kirk or kirkyard. It had been jist a hidy-hole in troubled times, whan the cuintry wud be swarmin wi' stravaguin marauders!'
'What made ye the seat for, Kirsty?' asked Gordon, calling her by her name for the first time, and falling into the mother tongue with a flash of his old manner.
'I come here whiles,' she answered, 'to be my lane and read a bit. It's sae quaiet. Eternity seems itsel to come and hide in 't whiles. I'm tempit whiles to bide a' nicht.'
'Isna 't awfu' cauld?'
'Na, no aften that. It's fine and warm i' the winter. And I can licht a fire whan I like.—But ye hae na yer coat on, Francie! I oucht na to hae latten ye bide sae lang!'
He shivered, rose, and made his way out. Steenie stood in the sunlight waiting for them.
'Why, Steenie,' said Gordon, 'you brought me to see your house: why didn't you come in with me?'
'Na, na! I'm feart for my feet: this is no my hoose!' answered Steenie. 'I'm biggin ane. Kirsty's helpin me: I cudna big a hoose wantin Kirsty! That's what I wud hae ye see, no this ane. This is Kirsty's hoose. It was Kirsty wantit ye to see this ane.—Na, it's no mine,' he added reflectively. 'I ken I maun come til 't some day, but I s' bide oot o' 't as lang's I can. I like the hill a heap better.'
'What does he mean?' asked Francis, turning to Kirsty.
'Ow, he has a heap o' notions o' 's ain!' answered Kirsty, who did not care, especially in his presence, to talk about her brother save to those who loved him.
When Francis turned again, he saw Steenie a good way up the hill.
'Where does he want to take me, Kirsty? Is it far?' he asked.
'Ay, it's a gey bitty; it's nearhan' at the tap o' the Horn, a wee ayont it.'
'Then I think I shall not go,' returned Francis. 'I will come another day.'
'Steenie! Steenie!' cried Kirsty, 'he'll no gang the day. He maun gang hame. He says he'll come anither time. Haud ye awa on to yer hoose; I s' be wi' ye by and by.'
Steenie went up the hill, and Kirsty and Francis walked toward Corbyknowe.
'Has no young man appeared yet to put Steenie's nose out of joint, Kirsty?' asked Gordon.
Kirsty thought the question rude, but answered, with quiet dignity, 'No ane. I never had muckle opinion o' yoong men, and dinna care aboot their company.—But what are ye thinkin o' duin yersel—I mean, whan ye're throu wi' the college?' she continued. 'Ye'll surely be comin hame to tak things intil yer ain han'? My father says whiles he's some feart they're no bein made the maist o'.'
'The property must look after itself, Kirsty. I will be a soldier like my father. If it could do without him when he was in India, it may just as well do without me. As long as my mother lives, she shall do what she likes with it.'
Thus talking, and growing more friendly as they went, they walked slowly back to the house. There Francis mounted his horse and rode away, and for more than two years they saw nothing of him.
Steenie seemed always to experience a strange sort of terror while waiting for anyone to come out of the weem, into which he never entered; and it was his repugnance to the place that chiefly moved him to build a house of his own. He may have also calculated on being able, with such a refuge at hand, to be on the hill in all weathers. They still made use of their little hut as before, and Kirsty still kept her library in it, but it was at the root of the Horn, and Steenie loved the peak of it more than any other spot in his narrow world.
I have already said that when, on the occasion of its discovery, Steenie, for the first and the last time, came out of the weem, he fled to the Horn. There he roamed for hours, possessed with the feeling that he had all but lost Kirsty who had taken possession of a house into which he could never accompany her. For himself he would like a house on the very top of the Horn, not one inside it!
Near the top was a little scoop out of the hill, sheltered on all sides except the south, which, the one time I saw it, reminded me strongly of Dante's grembo in the purgatorial hill, where the upward pilgrims had to rest outside the gate, because of the darkness during which no man could go higher. Here, it is true, were no flowers to weave a pattern upon its carpet of green; true also, here were no beautiful angels, in green wings and green garments, poised in the sweet night-air, watchful with their short, pointless, flaming swords against the creeping enemy; but it was, nevertheless, the loveliest carpet of grass and moss, and as to the angels, I find it impossible to imagine, even in the heavenly host, one heart more guardant than that of Kirsty, one truer, or more devoted to its charge. The two were together as the child of earth, his perplexities and terrors ever shot through with flashes of insight and hope, and the fearless, less imaginative, confident angel, appointed to watch and ward and see him safe through the loose-cragged mountain-pass to the sunny vales beyond.
On the northern slope of the hollow, full in the face of the sun, a little family of rocks had fallen together, odd in shapes and positions but of long stable equilibrium, with narrow spaces between them. The sun was throwing his last red rays among these rocks when Steenie the same evening wandered into the little valley. The moment his eyes fell upon them, he said in his heart, 'Yon's the place for a hoose! I'll get Kirsty to big ane, and mebbe she 'll come and bide in 't wi' me whiles!'
In his mind there were for some years two conflicting ideas of refuge, one embodied in the heathery hut with Kirsty, the other typified by the uplifted loneliness, the air and the space of the mountain upon which the bonny man sometimes descended: for the last three years or more the latter idea had had the upper hand: now it seemed possible to have the two kinds of refuge together, where the more material would render the more spiritual easier of attainment! Such were not Steenie's words; indeed he used none concerning the matter; but such were his vague thoughts—feelings rather, not yet thoughts.
The spot had indeed many advantages. For one thing, the group of rocks was the ready skeleton of the house Steenie wanted. Again, if the snow sometimes lay deeper there than in other parts of the hill, there first it began to melt. A third advantage was that, while, as I have said, the valley was protected by higher ground everywhere but on the south, it there afforded a large outlook over the boggy basin and over the hills beyond its immediate rim, to a horizon in which stood some of the loftier peaks of the highland mountains.
When Steenie's soul was able for a season to banish the nameless forms that haunt the dim borders of insanity, he would sit in that valley for hours, regarding the wider-spread valley below him, in which he knew every height and hollow, and, with his exceptionally keen sight, he could descry signs of life where another would have beheld but an everyway dead level. Not a live thing, it seemed almost, could spread wing or wag tail, but Steenie would become thereby aware of its presence. Kirsty, boastful to her parents of the faculty of Steenie, said to her father one day,
'I dinna believe, father, wi' Steenie on the bog, a reid worm cud stick up his heid oot o' 't ohn him seen 't!'
'I'm thinkin that's no sayin over muckle, wuman!' returned David. 'I never jist set mysel to luik, but I dinna think I ever did tak notice o' a worm settin up that heid o' his oot o' a bog. I dinna think it's a sile they care aboot. I kenna what they would get to please them there. It's the yerd they live upo'. Whaur craps winna grow, I doobt gien worms can live.'
Kirsty laughed: she had made herself ridiculous, but the ridicule of some is sweeter than the praise of others.
Steenie set about his house-building at once, and when he had got as far as he could without her, called for help from Kirsty, who never interfered with, and never failed him. Divots he was able to cut, and of them he provided a good quantity, but when it came to moving stones, two pairs of hands were often wanted. Indeed, before the heavier work of 'Steenie's hoosie' was over, the two had to beg the help of more—of their father, and of men from the farm.
During its progress, Phemy Craig paid rather a lengthened visit to Corbyknowe, and often joined the two in their labour on the Horn. She was not very strong, but would carry a good deal in the course of the day; and through this association with Steenie, her dread of him gradually vanished, and they became comrades.
When Steenie's design was at length carried out, they had built up with stone and lime the open spaces between several of the rocks; had cased these curtain-walls outside and lined them inside with softer and warmer walls of fells or divots cut from the green sod of the hill; and had covered in the whole as they found it possible—very irregularly no doubt, but smoothing up all the corners and hollows with turf and heather. This done, one of the men who was a good thatcher, fastened the whole roof down with strong lines, so that the wind should not get under and strip it off. The result was a sort of burrow, consisting of several irregular compartments with open communication—or rather, perhaps, of a single chamber composed of recesses. One small rock they included quite: Steenie would make it serve for a table, and some of its inequalities for shelves. In one of the compartments or recesses, they contrived a fireplace, and in another a tolerably well concealed exit; for Steenie, like a trap-door-spider, could not endure the thought of only one way out: one way was enough for getting in, but two were needful for getting out, his best refuge being the open hill.
The night came at length when Steenie, in whose heart was a solemn, silent jubilation, would take formal possession of his house. It was soft and warm, in the middle of the month of July. The sun had been set about an hour when he got up to leave the parlour, where the others always sat in the summer, and where Steenie would now and then appear among them. As usual he said goodnight to no one of them, but stole gently out.
Kirsty knew what was in his mind, but was careful not to show that she took any heed of his departure. As soon as her father and mother retired, however, when he had been gone about half an hour, she put aside her work, and hastened out. She felt a little anxious about him, though she could not have said why. She had no dread of displeasing by rejoining him; nothing, but a sight of the bonny man could, she knew, give him more delight than having her to share his night-watch with him. This she had done several times, and they were the only occasions on which, so far as he could tell, he had slept any part of the night.
Folded in the twilight, Earth lay as still and peaceful as if she had never done any wrong, never seen anything wrong in one of her children. There was light everywhere, and darkness everywhere to make it strange. A pale green gleam prevailed in the heavens, as if the world were a glow-worm that sent abroad its home-born radiance into space, and coloured the sky. In the green light rested a few small solid clouds with sharp edges, and almost an assertion of repose. Throughout the night it would be no darker! The sun seemed already to have begun to rise, only he would be all night about it. From the door she saw the point of the Horn clear against the green sky: Steenie would be up there soon! he was hurrying thither! Sometimes he went very leisurely, stopping and gazing, or sitting down to meditate: he would not do so that night! A special solemnity in his countenance made her sure that he would go straight to his new house. But she could walk faster than he, and would not be long behind him!
The sky was full of pale stars, and Kirsty amused herself, as she went, with arranging them—not into their constellations, though she knew the shapes and names of most of them, but into mathematical figures. The only star Steenie knew by name was the pole star, which, however, he always called The bonny man's lantern. Kirsty believed he had thoughts of his own about many another, and a name for it too.
She had climbed the hill, and was drawing near the house, when she was startled by a sound of something like singing, and stopped to listen. She had never heard Steenie attempt to sing, and the very thought of his doing so moved her greatly: she was always expecting something marvellous to show itself in him. She drew nearer. It was not singing, but it was something like it, or something trying to be like it—a succession of broken, harsh, imperfect sounds, with here and there a tone of brief sweetness. She thought she perceived in it an attempt at melody, but the many notes that refused to be made, prevented her from finding the melody intended, or the melody, rather, after which he was feeling. The broken music ceased suddenly, and a different kind of sound succeeded. She went yet nearer. He could not be reading: she had tried to teach him to read, but the genuine effort he put forth to learn made his head ache, and his eyes feel wild, he said, and she at once gave up the endeavour. When she reached the door, she could plainly hear him praying.
He had been accustomed to hear his father pray—always extempore. To the Scots mind it is a perplexity how prayer and reading should ever seem one. Kirsty went a little deeper into the matter when she said:—
'The things that I want, I ken; and I maun hae them! There's nae necessity ava to tell me what I want. The buik may wauk a sense o' want, I daursay, I dinna ken, but it maistly pits intil me the thoucht o' something a body micht weel want, withoot makin me awaur o' wantin 't at that preceese moment.'
Prayer, with Steenie, as well as with Kirsty, was the utterance, audible or silent, in the ever open ear, of what was moving in him at the time. This was what she now heard him say:—
'Bonny man, I ken ye weel: there's naebody in h'aven or earth 'at's like ye! Ye ken yersel I wad jist dee for ye; or gien there be onything waur to bide nor deein, that's what I would du for ye—gien ye wantit it o' me, that is, for I'm houpin sair 'at ye winna want it, I'm that awfu cooardly! Oh bonny man, tak the fear oot o' my hert, and mak me ready just to walk aff o' the face o' the warl', weichty feet and a', to du yer wull, ohn thoucht twise aboot it! And eh, bonny man, willna ye come doon sometime or lang, and walk the hill here, that I may luik upo' ye ance mair—as i' the days of old, whan the starlicht muntain shook wi' the micht o' the prayer ye heavit up til yer father in h'aven? Eh, gien ye war but ance to luik in at the door o' this my hoose that ye hae gien me, it wud thenceforth be to me as the gate o' paradise! But, 'deed, it's that onygait, forit's nigh whaur ye tak yer walks abro'd. But gien ye war to luik in at the door, and cry, Steenie! sune wud ye see whether I was in the hoose or no!—I thank ye sair for this hoose: I'm gaein to hae a rich and a happy time upo' this hill o' Zion, whaur the feet o' the ae man gangs walkin!—And eh, bonny man, gie a luik i' the face o' my father and mither i' their bed ower at the Knowe; and I pray ye see 'at Kirsty's gettin a fine sleep, for she has a heap o' tribble wi' me. I'm no worth min'in', yet ye min' me: she is worth min'in'!—and that clever!—as ye ken wha made her! And luik upo' this bit hoosie, 'at I ca' my ain, and they a' helpit me to bigg, but as a lean-to til the hoose at hame, for I'm no awa frae it or them—jist as that hoose and this hoose and a' the hooses are a' jist but bairnies' hooses, biggit by themsels aboot the big flure o' thy kitchie and i' the neuks o' the same—wi' yer ain truffs and stanes and divots, sir.'
Steenie's voice ceased, and Kirsty, thinking his prayer had come to an end, knocked at the door, lest her sudden appearance should startle him. From his knees, as she knew by the sound of his rising, Steenie sprang up, came darting to the door with the cry, 'It's yersel! It's yersel, bonny man!' and seemed to tear it open. Oh, how sorry was Kirsty to stand where the loved of the human was not! She had almost turned and fled.
'It's only me, Steenie!' she faltered, nearly crying.
Steenie stood and stared trembling. Neither, for a moment or two, could speak.
'Eh, Steenie,' said Kirsty at length, 'I'm richt sorry I disapp'intit ye! I didna ken what I was duin. I oucht to hae turnt and gane hame again!'
'Ye cudna help it,' answered Steenie. 'Ye cudna be him, or ye wud! But ye're the neist best, and richt welcome. I'm as glaid as can be to see ye, Kirsty. Come awa ben the hoose.'
Kirsty followed him in silence, and sat down dejected. The loving heart saw it.
'Maybe ye're him efter a'!' said Steenie. 'He can tak ony shape he likes. I wudna won'er gien ye was him! Ye're unco like him ony gait!'
'Na, na, Steenie! I'm far frae that! But I wud fain be what he wud hae me, jist as ye wud yersel. Sae ye maun tak me, what I am, for his sake, Steenie!'
This was the man's hour, not the dog's, yet Steenie threw himself at her feet.
'Gang oot a bit by yersel, Steenie,' she said, caressing him with her hand. 'That's what ye'll like best, I ken! Ye needna min' me! I only cam to see ye sattlet intil yer ain hoose. I'll bide a gey bit. Gang ye oot, an ken 'at I'm i' the hoose, and that ye can come back to me whan ye like. I hae my bulk, and can sit and read fine.'
'Ye're aye richt, Kirsty!' answered Steenie, rising. 'Ye aye ken what I'm needin. I maun win oot, for I'm some chokin like.—But jist come here a minute first,' he went on, leading the way to the door. There he pointed up into the wild of stars, and said, 'Ye see yon star o' the tap o' that ither ane 'at's brichter nor itsel?'
'I see 't fine, and ken 't weel,' answered Kirsty.
'Weel, whan that starnie comes richt ower the white tap o' yon stane i' the mids o' that side o' the howe, I s' be here at the door.'
Kirsty looked at the stone, saw that the star would arrive at the point indicated in about an hour, and said, 'Weel, I'll be expeckin ye, Steenie!' whereupon he departed, going farther up the hill to court the soothing of the silent heaven.
In conditions of consciousness known only to himself and incommunicable, the poor fellow sustained an all but continuous hand-to-hand struggle with insanity, more or less agonized according to the nature and force of its varying assault; in which struggle, if not always victorious, he had yet never been defeated. Often tempted to escape misery by death, he had hitherto stood firm. Some part of every solitary night was spent, I imagine, in fighting that or other evil suggestion. Doubtless, what kept him lord of himself through all the truth-aping delusions that usurped his consciousness, was his unyielding faith in the bonny man.
The name by which he so constantly thought and spoke of the saviour of men was not of his own finding. The story was well known of the idiot, who, having partaken of the Lord's supper, was heard, as he retired, murmuring to himself, 'Eh, the bonny man! the bonny man!' And persons were not wanting, sound in mind as large of heart, who thought the idiot might well have seen him who came to deliver them that were bound. Steenie took up the tale with most believing mind. Never doubting the man had seen the Lord, he responded with the passionate desire himself to see the bonny man. It awoke in him while yet quite a boy, and never left him, but, increasing as he grew, became, as well it might, a fixed idea, a sober, waiting, unebbing passion, urging him to righteousness and lovingkindness.
Kirsty took from her pocket an old translation of Plato's Phaedo, and sat absorbed in it until the star, unheeded of her, attained its goal, and there was Steenie by her side! She shut the book and rose.
'I'm a heap better, Kirsty,' said Steenie. 'The ill colour's awa doon the stair, and the saft win' 's made its w'y oot o' the lift, an' 's won at me. I 'maist think a han' cam and clappit my heid. Sae noo I'm jist as weel 's there's ony need to be o' this side the mist. It helpit me a heap to ken 'at ye was sittin there: I cud aye rin til ye!—Noo gang awa to yer bed, and tak a guid sleep. I'm some thinkin I'll be hame til my br'akfast.'
'Weel, mother's gaein to the toon the morn, and I'll be wantit fell air; I may as weel gang!' answered Kirsty, and without a goodnight, or farewell of any sort, for she knew how he felt in regard to leave-takings, Kirsty left him, and went slowly home. The moon was up and so bright that every now and then she would stop for a moment and read a little from her book, and then walk on thinking about it.
From that night, even in the stormy dark of winter, Kirsty was not nearly so anxious about Steenie away from the house: on the Horn he had his place of refuge, and she knew he never ventured on the bog after sunset. He always sought her when he wanted to sleep in the daytime, but he was gradually growing quieter in his mind, and, Kirsty had reason to think, slept a good deal more at night.
But the better he grew the more had he the look of one expecting something; and Kirsty often heard him saying to himself—'It's comin! it's comin!'
'And at last,' she said, telling his story many years after, 'at last it cam; and ahint it, I doobtna! cam the face o' the bonny man!'
Things went on in the same way for four years more, the only visible change being that Kirsty seldomer went about bare-footed. She was now between two and three and twenty. Her face, whose ordinary expression had always been of quiet, was now in general quieter still; but when heart or soul was moved, it would flash and glow as only such a face could. Live revelation of deeps rarely rippled save by the breath of God, how could it but grow more beautiful! Cloud or shadow of cloud was hardly ever to be seen upon it. Her mother, much younger than her father, was still well and strong, and Kirsty, still not much wanted at home, continued to spend the greater part of her time with her brother and her books. As to her person, she was now in the first flower of harmonious womanly strength. Nature had indeed done what she could to make her a lady, but Nature was not her mother, and Kirsty's essential ladyhood came from higher-up, namely, from the Source itself of Nature. Simple truth was its crown, and grace was the garment of it. To see her walk or run was to look on the divine idea of Motion.
As for Steenie, he looked the same loose lank lad as before, with a smile almost too sad to be a smile, and a laugh in which there was little hilarity. His pleasures were no doubt deep and high, but seldom, even to Kirsty, manifested themselves except in the afterglow.
Phemy was now almost a woman. She was rather little, but had a nice figure, which she knew instinctively how to show to advantage. Her main charm lay in her sweet complexion—strong in its contrast of colours, but wonderfully perfect in the blending of them: the gradations in the live picture were exquisite. She was gentle of temper, with a shallow, birdlike friendliness, an accentuated confidence that everyone meant her well, which was very taking. But she was far too much pleased with herself to be a necessity to anyone else. Her father grew more and more proud of her, but remained entirely independent of her; and Kirsty could not help wondering at times how he would feel were he given one peep into the chaotic mind which he fancied so lovely a cosmos. A good fairy godmother would for her discipline, Kirsty imagined, turn her into the prettiest wax doll, but with real eyes, and put her in a glass case for the admiration of all, until she sickened of her very consciousness. But Kirsty loved the pretty doll, and cherished any influence she had with her against a possible time when it might be sorely needed. She still encouraged her, therefore, to come to Corbyknowe as often as she felt inclined. Her father never interfered with any of her goings and comings. At the present point of my narrative, however, Kirsty began to notice that Phemy did not care so much for being with her as hitherto.
She had been, of course, for some time the cynosure of many neighbouring eyes, but had taken only the more pleasure in the cynosure, none in the persons with the eyes, all of whom she regarded as much below her. To herself she was the only young lady in Tiltowie, an assurance strengthened by the fact that no young man had yet ventured to make love to her, which she took as a general admission of their social inferiority, behaving to all the young men the more sweetly in consequence.
The tendency of a weakly artistic nature to occupy itself much with its own dress was largely developed in her. It was wonderful, considering the smallness of her father's income, how well she arrayed herself. She could make a poor and scanty material go a great way in setting off her attractions. The judicial element of the neighbourhood, not content with complaining that she spent so much of her time in making her dresses, accused her of spending much money upon them, whereas she spent less than most of the girls of the neighbourhood, who cared only for a good stuff, a fast colour, and the fashion: fit to figure and fitness to complexion they did not trouble themselves about. The possession of a fine gown was the important thing. As to how it made them look, they had not imagination enough to consider that.
She possessed, however, another faculty on which she prided herself far more, her ignorance and vanity causing her to mistake it for a grand accomplishment—the faculty of verse-making. She inherited a certain modicum of her father's rhythmic and riming gift; she could string words almost as well as she could string beads, and many thought her clever because she could do what they could not. Her aunt judged her verses marvellous, and her father considered them full of promise. The minister, on the other hand, held them unmistakably silly—as her father would had they not been hers and she his. Only the poorest part of his poetic equipment had propagated in her, and had he taught her anything, she would not have overvalued it so much. Herself full of mawkish sentimentality, her verses could not fail to be foolish, their whole impulse being the ambition that springs from self-admiration. She had begun to look down on Kirsty, who would so gladly have been a mother to the motherless creature; she was not a lady! Neither in speech, manners, nor dress, was she or her mother genteel! Their free, hearty, simple bearing, in which was neither smallest roughness nor least suggestion of affected refinement, was not to Phemy's taste, and she began to assume condescending ways.
It was of course a humiliation to Phemy to have an aunt in Mrs. Bremner's humble position, but she loved her after her own feeble fashion, and, although she would willingly have avoided her upon occasion, went not unfrequently to the castle to see her; for the kindhearted woman spoiled her. Not only did she admire her beauty, and stand amazed at her wonderful cleverness, but she drew from her little store a good part of the money that went to adorn the pretty butterfly. She gave her at the same time the best of advice, and imagined she listened to it; but the young who take advice are almost beyond the need of it. Fools must experience a thing themselves before they will believe it; and then, remaining fools, they wonder that their children will not heed their testimony. Faith is the only charm by which the experience of one becomes a vantage-ground for the start of another.
One day Phemy went to Castle Weelset to see her aunt, and, walking down the garden to find her, met the young laird.
Through respect for the memory of his father, he had just received from the East India Company a commission in his father's regiment; and having in about six weeks to pass the slight examination required, and then sail to join it, had come to see his mother and bid her goodbye. He was a youth no longer, but a handsome young fellow, with a pale face and a rather weary, therefore what some would call an interesting look. For many months he had been leading an idle life.
He lifted his hat to Phemy, looked again, and recognised her. They had been friends when she was a child, but since he saw her last she had grown a young woman. She was gliding past him with a pretty bow, and a prettier blush and smile, when he stopped and held out his hand.
'It's not possible!' he said; 'you can't be little Phemy!—Yet you must be!—Why, you're a grown lady! To think how you used to sit on my knee, and stroke my face! How is your father?'
Phemy murmured a shy answer, a little goose but blushing a very flamingo. In her heart she saw before her the very man for her hero. A woman's hero gives some measure, not of what she is, hardly of what she would like to be, but of what she would like to pass for: here was the ideal for which Phemy had so long been waiting, and wherein consisted his glory? In youth, position, and good looks! She gazed up at him with a mixture of shyness and boldness not uncommon in persons of her silly kind, and Francis not only saw but felt that she was an unusually pretty girl: although he had long ceased to admire his mother, he still admired the sort of beauty she once had. He saw also that she was very prettily dressed, and, being one of those men who, imagining themselves gentlemen, feel at liberty to take liberties with women socially their inferiors, he plucked a pheasant-eye-narcissus in the border, and said—at the same time taking the leave he asked,—
'Let me finish your dress by adding this to it! Have you got a pin?—There!—all you wanted to make you just perfect!'
Her face was now in a very flame. She saw he was right in the flower he had chosen, and he saw, not his artistic success only, but her recognition of it as well, and was gratified. He had a keen feeling of harmony in form and colour, and flattered women, while he paraded his own insight, by bringing it to bear on their dress.
The flower, in its new position, seemed radiant with something of the same beauty in which it was set; it was like the face above it, and hinted a sympathetic relation with the whole dainty person of the girl. But in truth there was more expression in the flower than was yet in the face. The flower expressed what God was thinking of when he made it; the face what the girl was thinking of herself. When she ceased thinking of herself then, like the flower, she would show what God was thinking of when he made her.
Francis, like the man he was, thought what a dainty little lady she would make if he had the making of her, and at once began talking as he never would have talked had she been what is conventionally called a lady—with a familiarity, namely, to which their old acquaintance gave him no right, and which showed him not his sister's keeper. She, poor child, was pleased with his presumption, taking it for a sign that he regarded her as a lady; and from that moment her head at least was full of the young laird. She had forgotten all she came about. When he turned and walked down the garden, she walked alongside of him like a linnet by a tall stork, who thought of her as a very pretty green frog. Lost in delight at his kindness, and yet more at his admiration, she felt as safe in his hands as if he had been her guardian angel: had he not convinced her that her notion of herself was correct! Who should know better whether she was a lady, whether she was lovely or not, than this great, handsome, perfect gentleman! Unchecked by any question of propriety, she accompanied him without hesitation into a little arbour at the bottom of the garden, and sat down with him on the bench there provided for the weary and the idle—in this case a going-to-be gallant officer, bored to death by a week at home with his mother, and a girl who spent the most of her time in making, altering, and wearing her dresses.
'How good it was of you, Phemy,' he said, 'to come and see me! I was ready to cut my throat for want of something pretty to look at. I was thinking it the ugliest place with the ugliest of people, wondering how I had ever been able to live in it. How unfair I was! The whole country is beautiful now!'
'I am so glad,' answered poor Phemy, hardly knowing what she said: it was to her the story of a sad gentleman who fell in love at first sight with a beautiful lady who was learning to love him through pity.
Her admiration of him was as clear as the red and white on her face; and foolish Francis felt in his turn flattered, for he too was fond of himself. There is no more pitiable sight to lovers of their kind, or any more laughable to its haters, than two persons falling into the love rooted in self-love. But possibly they are neither to be pitied nor laughed at; they may be plunging thus into a saving hell.
'You would like to make the world beautiful for me, Phemy?' rejoined Francis.
'I should like to make it a paradise!' returned Phemy.
'A garden of Eden, and you the Eve in it?' suggested Francis.
Phemy could find no answer beyond a confused look and a yet deeper blush.
Talk elliptical followed, not unmingled with looks bold and shy. They had not many objects of thought in common, therefore not many subjects for conversation. There was no poetry in Gordon, and but the flimsiest sentiment in Phemy. Her mind was feebly active, his full of tedium. Hers was open to any temptation from him, and his to the temptation of usurping the government of her world, of constituting himself the benefactor of this innocent creature, and enriching her life with the bliss of loving a noble object. Of course he meant nothing serious! Equally of course he would do her no harm! To lose him would make her miserable for a while, but she would not die of love, and would have something to think about all her dull life afterward!
Phemy at length got frightened at the thought of being found with him, and together they went to look for her aunt. Finding her in an outhouse that was used for a laundry, Francis told Mrs. Bremner that they had been in the garden ever so long searching for her, and he was very glad of the opportunity of hearing about his old friend, Phemy's father! The aunt was not quite pleased, but said little.
The following Sunday she told the schoolmaster what had taken place, and came home in a rage at the idiocy of a man who would not open his eyes when his house was on fire. It was all her sister's fault, she said, for having married such a book-idiot! She felt indeed very uncomfortable, and did her best in the way of warning; but Phemy seemed so incapable of understanding what ill could come of letting the young laird talk to her, that she despaired of rousing in her any sense of danger, and having no authority over her was driven to silence for the present. She would have spoken to her mistress, had she not plainly foreseen that it would be of no use, that she would either laugh, and say young men must have their way, or fly into a fury with Phemy for trying to entrap her son, and with Mrs. Bremner for imagining he would look at the hussey; while one thing was certain—that, if his mother opposed him, Francis would persist.
A NOVEL ABDUCTION
Phemy went seldom to the castle, but the young laird and she met pretty often: there was solitude enough in that country for an army of lovers. Once or twice Gordon, at Phemy's entreaty, went and took tea with her at her father's, and was cordially received by the schoolmaster, who had no sense of impropriety in their strolling out together afterward, leaving him well content with the company of his books. Before this had happened twice, all the town was talking about it, and predicting evil. Phemy heard nothing and feared nothing; but if feeling had been weather and talk tempest, she would have been glad enough to keep within. So rapidly, however, did the whirlwind of tongues extend its giration that within half a week it reached Kirsty, and cast her into great trouble: her poor silly defenceless Phemy, the child of her friend, was in danger from the son of her father's friend! Her father could do nothing, for Francis would not listen to him, therefore she herself must do something! She could not sit still and look on at the devil's work! Having always been on terms of sacred intimacy with her mother, she knew more of the dangers of the world, while she was far safer from them, than such girls as their natural guardians watch instead of fortifying, and understood perfectly that an unwise man is not to be trusted with a foolish girl. She felt, therefore, that inaction on her part would be faithlessness to the teaching of her mother, as well as treachery to her father, whose friend's son was in peril of doing a fearful wrong to one to whom he owed almost a brother's protection for his schoolmaster's sake. She did not believe that Francis meant Phemy any harm, but she was certain he thought too much of himself ever to marry her, and were the poor child's feelings to go for nothing? She had no hope that Phemy would listen to expostulation from her, but she must in fairness, before she did anything, have some speech with her!